We’ve got more flash fiction from Midwest BSFA member, Renee. We give you, “Tryed Christmas”!
Zaida climbed the stairs down into the stacks; she was carrying a list of book requests in her right hand while her left hand, skimming the wall as she took each step, had a flashlight dangling from the wrist. Only the emergency lights were on.
“Niles!” she called out. “I need you to search this list for me. Niles? Niles?!”
This place is creepy enough when the lights are on, she thought to herself as she descended into the darkness. And now here I am in search of Nilesferatu down here in unlighted stacks.
She entered the enveloping blackness without waiting for her pupils to adjust to the dark. For a moment all she could hear were her own footsteps on the concrete floor until she thought she heard a
muffled “Over here” call out. She began heading in the direction of the voice. Along the way she flipped varying light switches on bookcases but no other lights came on. With the dim cast of the emergency light Zaida made her way to the northeast side of the stacks.
“Niles, the electricity is out but I still need you to find these books for me,” she said. She shuffled the slips of papers in her hand with the book titles on them to make sure they were in Dewey decimal
order. What an odd lot, she thought. 133.5 T967 for Witchcraft and herbs, 929.8 for the Lawrence Family in Tryed Stone and another number she couldn’t make out with a title that seemed blurry as well, something about secrets.
“This last one I am going to take back but here are two for you to search,” she had finally reached the row where the voice was coming from.
As she looked up she noticed that it wasn’t Niles in the aisle at all but Cora and Bertha locked in a heated embrace. Bertha’s uniform shirt was hanging around her waist with the shirt tails still tucked in. Cora’s silk blouse was open, revealing a lacy scalloped black bra firm breasts milky white in color.
Cora’s arms gripped Bertha tightly and her left leg was up around Bertha’s waist, showing off perfectly formed calves in her Jimmy Choos. Her back was against the book case and Bertha was
kissing her as if her life depended on it; fierce and strong. Zaida watched as Bertha began to kiss Cora down her neck, working her way to Cora’s soft, large breast. Bertha hungrily freed one breast
from its lacy chamber and began to suckle like a new born pig. As Cora arched her back a smile spread across her lips and then she turned her head and gazed into Zaida’s eyes. Her right hand was gently messaging Bertha’s scalp while her left extended to Zaida.
“You are next, darling,” Zaida heard in her head. That was when she woke up.
Since Halloween things have been strange at work. Zaida could barely remember that day. She only remembers waking up in bed the following morning but couldn’t recall how she got home. And ever since then she began to feel odd around Cora. She didn’t know why she had been feeling odd around Cora but she felt it had to do something with that day and the missing memory. Something Cora did, but since she didn’t remember (only had the odd feelings) she decided to just interact as little as she had to with Cora. As little as she could, once you consider the staff was only five people.
It was around Thanksgiving that Zaida began having odd dreams involving Bertha and Cora. First the dreams began innocuously and it would seem like a regular workday with Cora asking her to join
Bertha and her for lunch. Then there were the dreams where she was lost in the woods and she could hear Bertha and Cora whispering but not what they were whispering about. And now this. How could she even look at Bertha after this? “Yuck,” she thought as she jumped into the shower.
Zaida was becoming acclimated to Tryed Stone. Now a five-month resident of the town she had resigned herself to the smallness of the area (compared to Boston) and learned the layout of the city in four days. She had a car but she only used it for shopping excursions to the strip mall. Everything she needed was in walking distance to her apartment. She had gotten into a routine, which is what she would have called a rut back home, but being here helped to give structure to her life.
On Mondays, she would go to Gracie’s Fruit ‘n’ Food and buy her groceries for the week. Gracie was nice but very talkative. She always wanted to tell Zaida the odd things that people bought or requested she stock, although she was discreet enough to never mention names. On Wednesdays and Fridays, Zaida would go for a jog around the city park which was located in the center of the city. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she would go to the same park and read a book or talk to the young mothers there watching their toddlers about library programs or good children’s books. On Saturdays, she would clean or drive into Nowhere to check out their local malls or she would go to movie. Sundays she would call home to her parents or return a phone call of a friend. They couldn’t believe she could live in a city with no nightlife; it seems as if they forgot she never went clubbing much anyway.
Tryed Stone was a very green city. She didn’t realize it until the foliage began to change and there was an array of gold, red, brown and orange everywhere she went. The sidewalk was a veritable carpet of leaves and even when they were raked up, blown away or swept and bagged in a few days there would be more leaf crunching underfoot.
After waking up in the middle of the night to another odd dream where she was wandering around a field against a tide of people wearing cow masks, Zaida awoke in the morning she exhausted. She decided to stop off at the local coffee shop to get a cup of coffee. If she had to start this day, she needed coffee to go with it.
To tell the truth, she never really liked coffee and until recently she could barely stand the stuff. But during one of her jogs one day she peered into the closest storefront window. There, behind the counter, was Adonis. Or at least the closest human approximation she had ever seen. He had dark curly hair, subtle olive skin, and a square jaw. How she wanted to go in and flirt, but she wasn’t the flirty type.
“Can I help you?” he asked. He gave her a big broad smile that stopped all the inner noise.
“Ummm… yeah… I just… I just need a moment to look over…” she stammered and looked up at the menu. Her face felt hot; she knew his eyes were on her.
She scanned the board trying to make sense of the exotic concoctions. Chai mocha frost. Peruvian blend. Kenyan dark roast. Reading the coffee menu was like a trip to a third world coffee.
After two minutes of studying the board, the baristo’s words cut into her coffee contemplation. “The caramel frappuccino is really good. I can make it as strong as you want it.”
“Hm…” she said, looking at the board for just plain coffee. “Just give me a regular small coffee.”
She looked into his eyes which were big and brown with flecks of green and gold. She quickly looked down at the book in her hand.
“Are you sure?” a smile began to tug at his lips making it into a smirk. Why was her face still hot? Maybe she should have ordered a cold drink.
With his back still turned to her she shyly looked up again and began to assess him bodily. Not too thin, she thought. She began to tick off his body parts. Broad shoulders, broad back, no ass (she tsked to herself over his glutes). He has hair on his arms, back of neck; things that usually repelled her but for some reason seemed to add to his allure. Although it was nippy outside he was wearing shorts and she noted his strong muscular legs.
He brought her the drink too soon. “Here you go,” he said placing it before her. “That’ll be one-fifty. You like cream in your coffee?” She gave him a puzzled look. Was he coming on to her?
“The cream and sugar are over there on that counter.” He pointed behind her. He looked into her eyes as he placed her change into her hand. “Have a good day, please come back.”
Zaida held her head down and slightly nodded, her mouth in a slight smile. She gave him a two-dollar tip then wondered afterwards if she should have written her phone number on one of the bills. Would he have known it was hers?
Oh, cream-coffee, she thought as she walked out the door. She held the warm beverage in her hands as she walked the rest of the way to work. By the time she was at the employees’ entrance door her coffee had cooled. She deposited into the trash can without taking a single sip.
Later that day, Zaida and Phillip were in the closed stack area pulling out holiday decorations. Usually Phillip is talkative and animated but for the last few days he has been unusually quiet. Zaida tried to break the silence by being vivified but was soon succumbing to Phillip’s somber mood.
“Should we bring this out?” Zaida asked in a solemn voice that belied the festive piece she was holding. It was a huge star made out of paper mache and sprinkled with silver sparkles. Even in the dim light it sparkled. There were several copies of the directions that showed how to make it. “Here are some instructions that go with–”
Phillip barely lifted his head up to look at it before returning his to the down to the box before him.
“No,” He replied with such a fierce firmness that it shocked Zaida. She put the star and its instructions back inside the box.
At story time, Phillip wasn’t much better either. His story hours usually ran about five to ten minutes longer but today all of them ended early. Zaida was working the public desk and noticed the children
exiting the activity room very quiet. Usually Bertha would have to remind the little ones to be quiet and there were always some stragglers who ran behind because they were busy showering Phillip with hugs and kisses. But not today. Today, they left quieter than they came. Even the teacher seemed nonplussed.
The only one who didn’t think anything was amiss was Bertha. She sat on her perch at the end of the desk and didn’t once look up as the children filed out of the door closest to her. Zaida quickly checked out the teacher’s collection of picture books and handed the shopping bag of books to the teaching assistant who seemed in a rush to leave with her class. Twenty minutes later around his usual time, Phillip walked out of the activity room and into the back office without ever looking over at the public desk.
That night Zaida’s dream was of the coffee house guy. She walked in and this time she knew exactly what she wanted.
“No pressure,” he said and took her behind the bar. “I know how to make a Zaida Latte.”
Amid the coffee beans, flavor syrups, and oversized mugs he held her face in his hands as she stared deep into the brown eyes that were now a deep coffee brown. He moved in close until finally his pink full lips were upon her lips and he gently kissed her, slowly slipping his tongue between her lips.
“I don’t even have to add sugar,” he breathed into her ear as he began licking her neck.
Moving fast as dreams do, the next thing Zaida knew she was laying on top of the counter with the baristo entering her, slowly at first then deeply and hard. He arched his back into a cobra pose, his head a hazy, blurry mound of hair she could barely see with slit eyes. The ass that she swore was nonexistent she clutched, and with each thrust tried to push closer to her. They were small, but toned and round. Her breathing became more shallow and her moans high pitched as he fell upon her, kissing her again, his tongue roaming around her mouth. His kisses tasted like vanilla and peppermint. She clutched his ass one last time and with an explosive throb starting from her pelvis, then quickly rushing from her head to her toes she screamed so loud she woke herself up.
Zaida sat straight up in bed, clasping both hands to her mouth. She was still shivering and trying to catch her breath. She ran her hand through her hair and said, That’s what dreams are supposed to be about. Cutting through her self-satisfied air of dream sex she had a feeling that someone had been watching the whole tryst unfold.
Suddenly, the city of Tryed Stone was in the holiday spirit. The town square was decorated for Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa with both the menorah and kinara competing with space with the 20-foot-tall tree on the square. Store fronts were decorated with windows painted with holiday price; street lamps had been taken over with plastic evergreen vines. Zaida tried to take in all the changes as she sprinted to work. She was late, as always, and it was her turn to do the morning set up. As Zaida rushed past the coffeehouse she noticed a new flavor of vanilla peppermint advertised on the blackboard sign out front.
After being alone for an hour, Bertha was the next to arrive. “Morning,” she said gruffly, then headed into the back room. Zaida just nodded to her, her arms full of picture books that Niles was remiss in shelving the night before. Cora came in next, looking like a fashion plate in long black boots and a swing coat.
“Good morning, Zaida,” she called out.
“Oh, hi,” Zaida answered back, accidentally bumping into computers as she tried to scurry away from her. She still couldn’t place what it was about her boss. Maybe it was something that most people felt about their bosses, she thought to herself. But she couldn’t explain the tension between them that was tinged with coldness but still pulled her to her.
Two hours later, she was at the front desk, sorting a book truck of books into one stack she wanted to discard and another she wanted to shelve down in the stacks. She was trying to keep her attention on the room, looking for needy customers and on her task at hand that when she felt a slim gelid hand on her shoulder she was shocked into awareness. A small stack of books went tumbling to the floor.
Zaida looked up to see a perfectly coiffed Cora was hovering over her. “Have you seen Phillip this morning?” she asked.
She has an ever-changing scent, Zaida thought. Today it’s lavender and …loam? The olfactory part of her brain was busily trying to decipher her scent that she nearly forgot to answer her question.
“Oh… yes,” Zaida answered as she bent down to pick up her books. “He came in at nine and went down to the stacks shortly afterwards.”
“Thanks,” Cora sashayed away on her high heeled boots in the direction of the door to the lower stacks. Ten minutes later the returned, telling Zaida she needed to work another desk shift while she performed the preschool program at noon.
“Okay,” Zaida replied with a raised eyebrow. Cora didn’t like doing the young preschool story time; afterwards she always complained about imperceptible smudges on her clothes.
But that didn’t explain where Phillip was and why he wasn’t able to perform story hour.
At 2 pm, back from lunch, Zaida wheeled a large book truck off the elevator into the lower level closed stacks. She decided she would shelve the books herself instead of waiting for Niles to get around to it. As she approached her aisle she turned on the light and noticed three book trucks filled with books parked in her area. She let out an exasperated sigh and muttered, Niles. She began to pull out the first truck to shove into another aisle when she heard a small male voice come from the far end of the aisle, close to the wall.
Zaida peered over the trucks to see who emitted the plea, thinking it was Niles piled under a stack of books.
“Are you okay?” Zaida said quickly shoving the first truck to the side then reaching for the second.
“I’m fine. Just go away.”
Now she recognized the voice. It wasn’t Niles at all.
“Phillip? Is that you?
“Can I come in?”
There was a long pause ‘til finally Phillip replied she could.
Zaida pulled away the third truck to find Phillip seated on the floor, curled up in a ball. His forehead was to his knees and arms covered his head. The rust color of decaying books and a faint film of dust covered the front of his beige pants. Zaida sat down in front of him, her back on the bookcase to the right and her feet on the bookcase to the left. She touched his back and slowly stroked it.
After ten minutes Phillip sniffed loudly and then raised his head. His face was splotchy and his eyes were red and weary. He tried to attempt a smile but at the trembling of his lip he changed his mind.
“Come out with me tonight,” Zaida said. “Do you have plans?”
“No, none.” Phillip wiped away a tear from his eye.
Lun Wo’s China Dragon Restaurant was nearly empty when they walked in. Behind the counter stood a young woman in a black t-shirt and pants. With her hair pulled back her face looked austere although she tried her best to brighten up as Zaida and Phillip approached her.
“Welcome to Lun Wo’s,” she said without the hint of an accent but a tinge of edginess. The small smile that she was wearing seemed to pain her, indeed. “Dine in or take out?”
“Dine in?” Zaida said, half to the hostess as she looked inquisitively to Phillip. He nodded his head to signal dining in was fine.
“Yes, we are dining in.”
“Okay, follow me,” the hostess picked up two large menus and walked them to their table.
The restaurant was packed with diners for a Tuesday night. It was close to the mall, in walking distance for those who are willing to walk the short bridge without a sidewalk and there were some brave souls who did because beside their feet were shopping bags from the various mall stores. Beside her Philip seemed small and far away, although he responded to her conversation. He seemed like a sad elf; he was wearing his seasonal green pointy hat with white furry trim. At the point of the hat hung a bell at the end but instead of seeing festive it slouched down on his head like an added weight of Christmas cheer. He had dusted off the streaks of rust and dust from his pants and the removal of his peacoat revealed an ugly Christmas sweater he wore without irony. They were both looking over their menus lightly discussing what looked appetizing; Zaida cast timid glances over at him.
“So, you are leaving in a few days?” Philip asked, closing his menu.
Zaida said she was and was about to say more when the hostile hostess returned with a pitcher of water and two glasses of ice. She told them their server would be with them momentarily, then looked at Zaida as if she had registered her from head to toe, then dismissed her as something beneath her. Zaida stared at her as she walked away, shook her head then turned back to Phillip.
“Yes, right after we close on Thursday I’ll be heading over the the airport to go see my father for Christmas.”
“Your mother is gone, right?”
“Yes, she’s gone. Years now.”
Philip nodded in a way that said he knew, he just forgot for the moment. He drew back a bit and Zaida took a sip from her water glass, wondering where was the server to take their order.
“So…” Zaida wanted to come right out and ask Philip what was going on with him but she couldn’t.
She has only known the man now for five months. The question was on the tip of her tongue but she chickened out. “What are your plans for the holidays?” she asked instead.
“Not much. It will just be me and mother this year. I had other plans to include someone else but that is over now.”
It was Zaida’s turn to nod this time as if in encouragement for Philip to go on. But the didn’t. Instead with those words he seemed to shrink another inch. Zaida wondered what Philip and his mother would do. Mrs. Yett was a hefty woman who liked to eat but didn’t like to cook. Philip was the one who did all the cooking in the household and from the leftovers that he would bring to work to share Zaida thought he was an excellent chef.
“Can I take your order?” Zaida told Philip to go ahead and place his order as she opened her menu again to remember what it was she decided on. Phillip ordered a stir-fried noodles – what had she decided on? Sesame chicken. She looked up to tell her server and in front of her stood her baristo.
“Oh, wow,” Zaida said nervously. “Hi.” Her greeting was small and shy. A nervous smile crept across her face.
“I thought that was you,” he said. His smile at her was much broader and more confident. Simultaneously, Zaida felt her heart leaping and her stomach doing flip flops. Make small talk, she commanded her brain. Find words.
“You work here, too?” she finally came up with.
“Yeah, here part time, just a few nights. My girlfriend got me the job here, it’s her family’s restaurant. If you don’t catch me here or at the coffee shop then I’m at home studying. I’m a grad student.”
Zaida picked up on his flippant use of the word girlfriend and her heart dropped. He has a girlfriend, she thought. Of course a guy like that would have a girlfriend. She kept smiling but it now became tightened.
“I’m your server, Mason by the way. And I’ll be right back with your drinks.” He winked at her before he left.
Now Zaida joined Philip in his silence. Philip was staring at his glass of water as if it was a crystal ball and Zaida’s eyes began to roam around the restaurant. A small child in a booth far away began to wail and she looked over at him. His face turned red and he slouched down in his booster chair next to his mother. He began pointing over towards Zaida and Philip, as if they were the cause of his discomfort and he could feel it across the room. The woman beside him, possibly his mother, began to coo into his ear but still the child screamed louder still pointing. It was as if he was saying, “I don’t have a dirty diaper, I’m not colicky. It’s those miserable people over there who are just putting melancholy into the air.”
Maybe the baby is right, Zaida thought.
Twenty minutes later Mason came back with their food. He was still cheery in his manner which seemed to enhance the festive attitude surrounding them.
Zaida picked up her chopsticks and began to eat while Philip continued to stare down at his plate as if he couldn’t recognize it was food before him. Zaida had just decided that she was going to ask him and was strategizing how to approach it when Philip softly blurted out, “Bertha and I broke up.” He said it so softly that Zaida wasn’t sure if she heard him correctly. “Huh?”
“We’re done. We’re broken.” Philip said a bit louder. Then he was quiet again.
Questions began to pop into Zaida’s head. Like, didn’t he think he could do better? What broke them up? How long? But instead she asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Phillip said. And then, “No.”
Zaida reached over and touched his hand. “I’m sorry.”
Phillip nodded. With this revelation he seemed to shrink one more time. Zaida thought if he reduced in size again he will disappear.
Their attentive server stood over them. Before she would have read it as mutual attraction but now she just saw it as a desire to pad his tip. “How’s everything going? Can I get you anything else?”
“A check?” Zaida was apprehensive at first but looking over at Phillip she saw him nodding.
They left their barely touched food on the table, not wanting to take the grief tainted dinner with them. Phillip, feeling he was the reason for the pall over dinner, paid for both meals and drove Zaida home.
As they pulled up to her apartment Phillip apologized for his despondency during dinner.
“And my snippiness for the last few days. And disappearing today into the stacks,” he turned to look at her with eyes that seem clearer than they have in days. “Oh my, I guess I haven’t been altogether here, have I?”
“It’s okay. It’s understandable.”
“Enjoy your trip,” he called after her as she climbed out of the car. Zaida waved goodbye.
Even though she discovered that Mason was involved with someone, it didn’t stop him from creeping into her dreams that night. What started as a Chinese lunch at one of the tables in the cafe again ended up with Zaida laying prone across the coffee counter and Mason on top of her, in between her legs. His hands roaming as he was grinding deeply into her. This feels real, she thought. But this is a dream. She reached unbuttoned his pants and slid her hand into his underwear as she felt his breath on her neck. She let out a slight moan and turned her head to the side. Through the slit of her eyes she thought she saw someone seated at the table.
As she slowly stroked his member Zaida’s focused on the two dark forms seated at the table. As they began to come more clearer Zaida sat up, pushing Mason off of her and disrupting the magic of the dream. She sat up in bed, fully awake and glanced at the digital clock on her night stand. It was 1am.
She fumbled around in the dark, found the remote then turned the television on switching channels for the next 30 minutes until she found a news channel that would occupy her mind, hoping the images of far away wars, stock markets and large pumpkins could erase the last image of her dream. Because in the cafe was seated Cora and Bertha. They were watching her, intently and sipping coffee.